Monday, February 15, 2016

The value of goaltending. Plus Evander Kane, Justin Bailey and more...

Reprinted with permission from

Tell me that goaltending doesn't matter to most teams outside the city of Chicago.

The Buffalo Sabres, or as some would say, "the lowly Buffalo Sabres," have now beaten Montreal Canadiens twice this month by a combined 10-6 score. In their only other meeting which occurred in late October, Les Habitants soundly beat Buffalo 7-2. The difference?

Carey Price, of course.

Since Price went down with an injury in late November and if "speculation" is correct, may be out the rest of the season. Last year he took home a boatload of hardware including the Hart and Vezina Trophies while almost single-handedly advancing the Canadiens to the Conference Semifinals. Price had a remarkable 44-16-6 regular season record in 2014-15 with an incredibly stingy 1.96 goals-against average and a strong .933 save percentage. And he followed that up with an equally strong beginning to this season:  10-2-0;  2.06 gaa; .934 sv%.

Everything was clicking for Montreal to begin this season which included a 9-game win streak in regulation to start the season (one shy of tying the record of 10 straight held by Buffalo.) The small but fast Canadiens looked a little bit bigger and were a little bit quicker as well while backup goalie Mike Condon looked very strong in net. But confidence is a funny thing. When you take away your security blanket, things get messy.

Montreal is now 10-21-2 without price after their 6-4 loss in Buffalo last night. As a whole they still play fast, they don't look bigger than they actually are. Granted, they rang plenty of iron last night and carried the play for most of the third period when down by only a goal, plus they're still dominant against Buffalo on the powerplay (2 for 3 last night, 5 for 8 this season,) but their goaltenders (yes, plural as starter Ben Scrivens was yanked early in the second) didn't get the job done.

The Canadiens aren't the only team and we can look to the Buffalo Sabres. Over their last two games. Robin Lehner, who had been stellar since returning from a high ankle sprain was rocked for four goals on 12 shots before getting the hook against the Florida Panthers on Tuesday. He was back in net on Thursday and surrendered five goals on 28 shots.

Last night it was backup Chad Johnson and he was shaky in net surrendering three goals on 15 shots, including an egregious, stupid play that gift-wrapped a goal Sven Andrighetto to bring the Habs to within one, 4-3. Johnson would redeem himself the rest of the way stopping all but one of Montreal's 15 shots and finishing with a .867 sv%.

Another example would be the Columbus Blue Jackets.

The Jackets rode the hot hand of goalie Sergei Bobrovsky into the first round of the 2014 playoffs. They gave the Pittsburgh Penguins everything they had before bowing out in six games. Last season they were expected to make a big jump but were felled by numerous injuries. Expectations were high for a helathy Columbus team heading into the season but goaltending let them down. Their 3.09 gaa ties them with the Ottawa Senators for last in the league.

The Sens themselves rode a hot goalie in Andrew "The Hamburglar" Hammond to the playoffs with a remarkable stretch run, but were downed by Price and the Canadiens in the first round of the playoffs.

The logic behind an ultra-strong group of skaters in front of an average to above average goalie is sound, but without a group like the Chicago Blackhawks or Steve Yzerman lead Detroit Red Wings, or the Mario Lemieux-era of the Pittsburgh Penguins, you need goaltending. And if the Sabres are going to win near-term while their young group of skaters develop, goaltending is the key.

How Ya Like Me Now?

Sabres forward Evander Kane was much-maligned for the first half of the season and it was hard for Sabres fans to see why GM Tim Murray was so enamored with the disgruntled Winnipeg Jets winger. In addition, the package Murray sent to the Jets in the Kane trade was rather prohibitive, or so we thought.

There are many angles to a trade which includes not only the players traded for but the timing and the players/picks traded away and early on it looked as if the trade was a pretty weak one for Buffalo. But that perception has slowly been changing.

Kane has really begun to pick things up this calendar year. It started with him finding his stride, then finding his north-south game then finding some open ice. And when he found that ice he began shooting the puck. For example, in a meeting with the Boston Bruins earlier this month Kane peppered Boston with 11 shots on goal and potted one.

Finding that groove would lead to an Eddie Shore hat trick as he got into three fights in a game against the Florida Panthers five days later. He scored a goal in that game as well and fell an assist shy of the Gordie How hat trick.

Kane's been on a bit of a tear lately. He has four goals in six games this month, seven in his last 12 while nearly doubling his total of 15 on the season which is fourth on the team and two shy of the-team lead (Ryan O'Reilly.)

He sparred with Montreal's PK Subban last night on First Niagara Center Ice and even scored an empty-netter as Subban turned all cry-baby because of a bad bounce. How fitting. Am looking forward to these to facing off against each other for the next few seasons.

Eichel needs to take a page out of Kane's book.

That Kane never saw a shot he didn't like is a given. He's presently 10th in the league with 194 shots on goal. Kane has been channeling Washington's Alexander Ovechkin who has a shop in Akron to feed him all the rubber he shoots at the net. But, you can't score if you don't shoot the puck.

About midway through the second period rookie Jack Eichel picked up the puck at the Montreal blueline and skated in on a 3-on-2. The defense was focused upon the two Sabres charging the net leaving Eichel with a clear shot. Instead of unleashing his wicked wrister he passed the puck and it was deflected.

Note to Jack Eichel, "Dude, you're not Mike Weber. My God, shoot the damn thing!"

This isn't the first time Eichel has done that and it's something that should rarely, if ever, be seen again. Perhaps he needs to chat with Kane and have some of that rub off on him.

Justin Bailey's debut, spends time in the box with Kane

Speaking of chats, rookie Justin Bailey, playing in only his second NHL game went to the box last night for holding and took a seat next to Kane who was in the sin-bin after an altercation with Subban. And that was a good thing. Not so much that the two were in the box which eventually lead to a 4-on-3 powerplay goal for the Habs, but for the fact that Kane looks like he could be a bit of a mentor for Bailey.

Bailey had a ruckus debut in Philadelphia the previous night and was Buffalo's best player. He skated hard, worked hard and pumped seven shots on goal (remind you of someone?) Bailey was the first Buffalo rookie to pump seven shots on goal in his first NHL game since Alexander Mogilny did it on October 5, 1989, according to Sabres Pr.

It's a learning experience for Bailey in this his first pro season and thus far he really hasn't looked all that out of place at the NHL-level as he was placed on a line with Eichel and Jamie McGinn.

It will be interesting to see how much space is cleared by the NHL trade deadline and which Rochester Americans will make the jump. McGinn is a strong candidate to be traded as is David Legwand. Word from our own Buffalo39 has names like Johan Larsson, Marcus Foligno and Cody Franson in the mix.

Personally, I'd like to see Bailey remain to the right of Eichel when Girgensons returns from his injury. Bailey already knows to get the puck in Eichel's hands and find some open space, something Girgensons has been pretty adept at.

Foligno shows glimpses of 2012

When Marcus Foligno hit the NHL in he was a force. In 14 games he had 13 points (6g +7a) as he was on a line with center Tyler Ennis and RW, Drew Stafford. That line was so hot, they almost single-handedly propelled the team into the playoffs that season.

Unfortunately for Foligno, he got a little to full of himself and has struggled mightily since. Lately, however, he's found himself again as he's taken his bottom-six role to heart and a has been playing a strong powerforward kind of game. Injuries forced him into the top-six and he responded last night with a three-point night on the power of two goals and one assists.

He was named the game's first star.

Oldies but goodies

As Rock and Roll Never Forgets is to Uptown Funk, so are veterans Brian Gionta and David Legwand to this young group of Sabres players.

Gionta, 37 and Legwand, 35 are the elder statesmen of the Sabres and are taking their respective roles to heart as they're getting it done on the bottom-six.

Legwand had a goal last night after hitting the afterburners for a breakaway. Although afterburners and "explosive" might be a little off, he showed that he can still break away from the defense and still bury the puck. The first-ever pick of the Nashville Predators (1998, 2nd-overall) was an afterthought in the trade for Robin Lehner but has really been impressive in a limited role as a fourth-line center while playing on the top-unit of the penalty kill.

An  interesting stat as given by the broadcast team last night, the Sabres went into the game allowing only 3 goals on 42 kills (92.9%,) none in the previous 11. That changed as the Habs went 2 for 3, but it doesn't change the fact that the penalty kill has really progressed since the beginning of the season and Legwand's big part of that.

At 37 years old, Gionta seems to be getting stronger as the season wears on. He's had plenty of jump in his game and is all around the puck even if he's not producing points.

Case in point.

On Buffalo's fourth goal last night, Gionta corralled the puck in his own end and darted up ice. He faced two Montreal defenders at the Canadiens' blueline, chipped the puck in and went after it. The puck would squirt to Phil Varone who was following the play, and he got it right to Foligno who was crashing the net.

Although he wasn't credited with an assist, Gionta got the play moving by showing some surprising jump and quickness. This is game 56 on the season and the old-time should be wearing down a bit. But, he's not.

Gionta was signed for his leadership and character. He's no longer in his mid-20's scoring 25 goals a season but what he's bringing to this young team is knowledge of the NHL grind and how to handle it. Methinks there are players like O'Reilly and Rasmus Ristolainen who could take to heart what Gionta has to offer. Both have been bogged down by the grind of the season and players like Gionta and veteran Josh Gorges may offer some good advice as to managing it.

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